open access


This essay focuses on the dream that begins Cormac McCarthy's The Road, an opening sequence which previous readings have tended to overlook. I argue that the monster in this dream is an odd assemblage: a cave-dwelling predator somehow compiled from elements redolent of the blasted commercial landscape which the father and son will later scour for food. In particular, I contend that the tolling brain and unseeing mode of observation that mark this creature resonate unexpectedly with the barcodes that first entered American life in the 1970s and which became increasingly difficult to avoid during the 1990s. Detailing the increasingly sophisticated use that major supermarkets made of this technology following the initial rise of personal computers, I argue that their barcode systems were a crucial forerunner of the digital surveillance forms that prevail today—and I also argue that an antipathy toward these systems becomes apparent as The Road's father, while always feeling followed, discards all branding and packaging in order to revalorise food on the basis of its material worth. At the end of the essay I relate McCarthy's ambivalent response to the encroaching commercial logic of the American road to other dystopic fantasies, including Ever Dundas's Hell Sans, in which external repositories of personal information seem similarly to limit bodily freedom and desire.